Satoko Fujii is a prolific composer, yet it was a while since she released a new album, probably taking time to tour and to compose. Now she's back with two stunning albums (actually three), which I will review together for an interesting reason. The first one is "Watershed" with Fujii on piano, her husband Natsuki Tamura on trumpet, Curtis Hasselbring on trombone and Andrea Parkins on accordion. The second one is "Rafale", with Fujii and Tamura accompanied by the French musicians Christian Pruvost on trumpet and Peter Orins on drums.
When I first listened to both albums, "Rafale" struck me immediately as significant, eloquent and strong, with a two trumpet line-up, memorable compositions and excellent playing. "Watershed", showed a little less immediate access, possibly because of its even more bizarre line-up. Yet with increased listening, and attentive listening, my preference started changing, moving into the direction of "Watershed". I hope I can expain why.
Satoko Fujii & Min-Yoh - Watershed (Libra, 2011) *****
This is the second album of Fujii's Min-Yoh ensemble - "Fujin Raijin" being the first, which takes music from traditional Japanese folk and turns it into something else, as you will read below. The album is an absolute delight, and one that reveals more and more nuances as you listen to it more. It is a little gem. A gem of musical performance. And a gem of musical vision.
To start with the vision : all compositions have quite identifiable and often fun themes, with often odd time signatures, and joyful as if you are listening to Don Cherry (on "Whitewater") or the Pinguin Café Orchestra (on "Sorambushi"). Yet these tunes are just the basis, the surface. Below the surface, the four musicians paint a totally different landscape, one of tension, drama, conflict and distress, full of dissonance, weird sounds, and sudden trumpet blasts of sheer horror, as if some deep and unfathomable mysteries are hiding in the deep dark. The musicians drag you really out of your comfort zone, and bring you back into it ... sometimes ... In the meantime, you've been to unusual places, yet somehow, there is a happy ending. You know you've been to a place you maybe shouldn't have been, or even several, but the soothing sounds of the last track, "Estuary", bring you a happy ending. All is calm, all is peace again.
A gem of musical performance : if two musicians on earth should be able to play music telepathically, it must be Fujii and Tamura. And they do. The absolute revelation in this context is the interplay with Parkins and Hasselbring. Parkins is an incredible scene-setter, playing her accordion more as an harmonic instrument, a sound-builder, almost like an harmonium, redefining the role of her instrument as she's done many times before. Hasselbring too, is a trombonist to my heart, using the instrument's unique propensity for warm, long and moaning gliding tones, but equally versatile to drive it headfirst into dissonance as in the incredible duo with Parkins on "Cascade". And the unique interaction, with shifting moods, genre and sub-genres is absolutely exceptional, chaos evolving into unison lines, duo shifting into trios, then other trio, and duo and back to full quartet, as if all four where just one being.
So, really strong. Incredibly rich music. Incredibly creative too. With unheard genre-bending innovation.
But you have to go deep under the surface. And be willing to.
Kaze - Rafale (Circum Libra, 2011) ****½
I hope that this album, co-released on the French Circum with Fujii and Tamura's Libra label, will give the music some more sales in Europe.
On "Crossword Puzzle", Tamura was already joined with another trumpeter to form the front line, then with Angelo Verploegen, now he is joined by Christian Pruvost. From a sonic point of view the collaboration works well, as both trumpeters have a broad range of techniques, from the more traditional to the most avant-garde.
All tracks have the same kind of structure, starting with unusual sonic landscapes and lots of extended techniques, by one or two instruments, and then halfway through the piece form starts to emerge, in the form of chords, or chord patterns, maybe some rhythm and yes, eventually a theme.
The first piece, "Noise Chopin", grows out of voiceless trumpet whispers and the strumming of piano strings to Chopin's piano sonate n° 2, better known as the "Funeral March", only fully recognisable after eleven minutes into the composition, with first the piano, then one trumpet, then the other one, being dragged into the theme, until it blooms open in its full beauty, with the drums hitting hard, almost tribal, to avoid the real march rhythm, wayward and obstinate.
"Anagramme", composed by Orins, starts with bird-like chatter between both trumpets, as if you've been locked up in a bird cage, with plucked strings and cymbals creating a sizzling background, out of which the piano starts actually playing a few notes with the expected tonal color, the drums picking up rhythm, while the trumpets keep their mad dialogue going, until after five minutes the theme emerges, played by Tamura (I think), beautifully, followed by Pruvost, muted and in counterpoint, really solemn and beautiful until Orins brings in a rock rhythm, and the same theme gets a totally different, now jubilant character, with Orins adding some crazy counterbeats to make the musical feast even more enjoyable.
The drums lead us into the next piece, "The Thaw", a Fujii composition that we also find back on "Watershed", and which gradually develops from drums to romantic piano with both trumpets sounding like a the wind on the background, until they find their voices, playing the theme in full unison, sensitively, fragile, leaving the theme and coming back to it. "Marie-T", penned by Orins, is even more fragile, barely existing, despite its full eight minutes, a piece of lace.
The next piece, "Poly", starts with the lace, yet develops into some hard-hitting rock drums again, with a broken rhythm, heavier, full of drama.
"Blast", the last track, is sheer madness, evolving out of absolute chaos, into a forward-driving rhythm, played by the piano, and when the trumpets take over the theme, the piano and drums go totally berserk again, then the drums for a solo, some shouting, and then the unbelievable contrast of two trumpets playing a hymn-like theme over the general mayhem created by drums and piano, until Fujii picks up the theme with steady pounding left hand, and drives the whole quartet into full forward motion into its magnificant grand finale.
Again, an incredibly rich listening experience, ranging for intimate impressionism to bursts of expressionism, from soundtrack-like car-chase elements to avant-garde soundscapes, and with the occasional rock beat. You get it all here, in spades. Jazz, you wonder? Who cares.
Both highly recommended albums. My star-rating could have been the reverse, or both five stars.
The most incredible thing about Fujii and Tamura is their endless creativity. Every new album stands on its own, redefines listening to music, redefines genres, redefines playing music.
Just buy both albums. You will not be disappointed.
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